Making Sinatra Sinatra

Bill Miller (1915–2006)

Frank Sinatra called himself a “saloon singer,” because that’s where he used to sing, way back when, in Jersey juke joints and roadhouses. Not for long. He was too good, even then. But for a while, if you headed up to the Rustic Cabin on Route 9W in the Garden State, they had this pianist pushing a little half-piano from table to table and the waiter would sing with him and they had a tip jar on the lid and you couldn’t help noticing that the kid sang awful good for a waiter, and pretty soon the singing was earning him, as he figured it, “about fifteen clams a week.”

Thirty, forty, fifty years later, week in, week out, the same singing waiter, with full supporting orchestra, was barreling through a set at some grim rock stadium on the edge of a strip mall in some nondescript suburb. Midway through, the lights would dim, and Frank Sinatra would announce that he now would sing a “saloon song,” and proceed to shrink whichever sterile aircraft hangar he’d been booked into down to the size of those pokey smoky New Jersey saloons of his youth. There were the old props—the tumbler, the cigarette—and the scene setting grew ever more ornate over the years, expanding into an almighty pileup of retro hipsterisms as Sinatra prepared us for the tale of some emblematic long-lost loser whose “chick split, flew the coop, cleaned out his stash, and left him cryin’ into a gallon of Muscatel.” Under the words a tinkly tipsy barroom-piano intro would begin, and Sinatra would invite us to “assume the position of the bartender” and listen to the old, old story:

It’s quarter to three
There’s no one in the place
Except you and me
So set ’em up, Joe
I got a little story
I think you oughta know.

We all knew the story. But the strange thing was, through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s, no matter how flip the speaking part got, when Sinatra started to sing that first line, the semi-parodic grooviness was all gone, and you were in for the most intense four minutes in the show, intimate and universal, bleak but weirdly exhilarating.

The man playing the piano was Bill Miller, and that intro to “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” was his invention. It is a marvelous thing that works at so many levels: it evokes the tinny sound of a saloon piano, and it meanders a little woozily, like a fellow who’s drunk a skinful heading back to the bar for one more, and it also has a kind of bleak, weary acceptance about it, as if both storyteller and barman know that in the end the one buttonholing the other will change nothing. It’s self-aware about its self-pity; it understands that, in everything that matters, it’s already past closing time. And it’s also an acting performance, in that Miller is playing not just the piano accompaniment to the song but also the role of the barroom pianist in the story the singer’s telling. Miller matches the paradox of the vocal performance with one of his own: just as Sinatra gives what Robert Cushman called “a perfectly controlled performance of a man who’s falling apart,” the pianist, under the cover of a rinky-dink saloon piano, provides an amazing harmonic intensity.

That’s a hell of a lot to cram into a few bars. I once tried to say all the above to Bill Miller, and he said: “Yeah.” Oh, well. That’s what he said back in 1951 when he was playing at the Desert Inn in Vegas and Sinatra came by to ask if he’d like to work with him: “Yeah.” He stayed for the best part of half a century, and played Sinatra songs to the very end, dying in Montreal, after a hip break and a heart attack, while in town for a month of shows with Frank Sinatra Jr. Miller was ninety-one and had to be helped from his wheelchair to the piano stool. But the fingers still worked. A few months after Sinatra’s death, in 1998, Miller returned to the stage for a concert by Frank Jr. The lights were dimmed; the pianist took his seat in the dark, unannounced, and began to play “One for My Baby.” “The audience let out a gasp,” remembered Junior. “They were all Sinatra fans, and they recognized Bill immediately.”

Miller wasn’t exactly unsung. Au contraire, seven-eighths into “Mack the Knife,” Frank liked to take a chorus to introduce the musicians:

We got Bill Miller playin’ that piano
And this great big band bringin’ up the rear
All these bad cats in this band now
They make the greatest sounds you ever gonna hear …

But that was pretty much it in the way of public acclaim, aside from onstage references to Miller’s ghostly pallor (“Our pianist is a man we call Suntan Charlie”). Yet Miller and the handful of other guys who made up the Sinatra rhythm section night after night in Vegas and Atlantic City and London and Rome and Rio and Tokyo belong to a very exclusive club. Bill outlasted Ava and Marilyn and Mia and the other dames, and Dino and Sammy and most of the pallies, too. And the musicians got the best snaps for the scrapbook—not the tuxedoed bonhomie and Friars Club kibitzing you see in the pics of Frank and Bob Hope and John Wayne, not the pasta-joint mug shots of Frank and lesser buddies, but Frank at work, with you! There’s a great photo of Miller half a century ago, doodling at the keyboard, tie loosened, bleary eyed, cigarette hanging from his lower lip, and Sinatra leaning on the piano, tanned and open shirted, hand in pocket, looking over the sheet music—and beaming with delight. Miller’s running through a number for him, and Sinatra’s liking what he hears, and maybe it’s going to be the next “I Get a Kick Out of You” or “You Make Me Feel So Young.” In other words, Miller is in the act of helping make Sinatra Sinatra.

Miller was born across the water from Sinatra, in Brooklyn, just months earlier. At sixteen, he was billing himself as “Bill Miller, the Ace of Jazz.” At eighteen, he was the pianist for Larry Funk and His Band of a Thousand Melodies, and then came Red Norvo and Charlie Barnet. Heading home from a gig at the 1940 World’s Fair, Miller and the gal he was dating had the car radio on. “Hey, listen,” she said, “doesn’t that sound good? That’s Dick Haymes.” Miller said, “No, it’s not Dick Haymes. Dick Haymes doesn’t sing that good.” He had to wait till the end, and the disc jockey’s announcement: “All or Nothing at All,” by Harry James and His Orchestra, vocal refrain by Frank Sinatra.

A decade later, Sinatra had had it all and was on his way back down to nothing. Miller was the man at the keyboard as Sinatra rebuilt his career. He became celebrated for the saloon piano on a trio of Johnny Mercer three-in-the-morning numbers: “One for My Baby,” “Drinking Again,” and “Empty Tables.” But he was also indispensable to the other side of the singer: the swingin’ Sinatra you hear on his up-tempo “Way You Look Tonight.” The bassist Chuck Berghoffer once asked Sinatra, “How do you swing so hard? What do you think about?” Sinatra answered, “I just get a cuckoo rhythm section and stay out of the way.”

Not exactly. Rather, he rode on top of it, like a surfer coming in on the perfect wave. Miller was always the heart of that side of Frank, playing the rhythmic piano intros that kickstart The Lady Is a Tramp,” or “Lonesome Road,” or even “Ol’ MacDonald.” Yes, that “Ol’ MacDonald”:

Ol’ MacDonald had a farm
And on that farm he had a chick …

You can pretty much guess how things develop from there. Plenty of Sinatra scholars loathe that record: why would a guy who could sing Rodgers and Hart record “Ol’ MacDonald”? As the detractors see it, it was because he could; it was a power trip, a way of saying “Screw you” to the world. Say what you like about gangsta rap, but even Snoop Dogg isn’t arrogant enough to give us “Ol’ MacDonald had a farm / And on that farm he had a ho …” But I love that “Ol’ MacDonald.” It builds wonderfully, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics, despite boxing themselves into the nursery rhyme’s with-a-little-this-here-and-a-little-this-there structure, manage to top each verse with the next:

With a promenade here and a promenade there
At a square dance, boy, this chick was no square.

That said, with the best will in the world, “Ol’ MacDonald” isn’t exactly an interesting tune, and that’s where Miller comes in. His piano helps make it such a wild ride. He’s like the mechanical hare at the greyhound track, if a mechanical hare could swing: he sets off, and Sinatra takes off too.

In 1964, the pianist’s home in Burbank was washed away in a mudslide. The Millers were swept away with it: their teenage daughter, Meredith, made it to the top of a hill, and Bill was rescued hanging from a car, but his wife, Aimee, was only found the following night. Sinatra identified the body and then went to see Miller in the hospital. “If it’s any consolation,” he said, “there wasn’t a mark on her.” As the laconic Miller liked to tell friends, “It wasn’t any consolation.” But Sinatra paid the medical expenses and got Miller a new place. And, when they inevitably busted up, in the late ’70s, Sinatra hired other pianists but stayed away from “One for My Baby” altogether. Anyone can conduct “My Way” (as Miller did on the hit recording), but Sinatra understood that the truly definitive Sinatra song depended on the presence of another man, Bill Miller. In 1985, Miller returned for “One for My Baby,” and one more decade for the road.

There was one last classic recording. The final cut on Sinatra’s 1993 Duets isn’t really a duet at all—or at least not a celebrity duet. Take a chisel to the CD and remove Kenny G’s syrupy drooling of “All the Way” on the front of the track, and then sit back as the strings recede and Bill Miller begins his barroom-piano noodling. It’s the best duet on the album—just Frank and Bill—and the latter doesn’t even get a credit on the sleeve, just a tiny namecheck deep in the interior of the small print as “Mr. Sinatra’s pianist.” The voice is rough, its vulnerability deliberately exposed, especially on the last line’s long good-bye. But, raw and harrowing as it is, it’s a final Sinatra masterpiece. The piano dies away, and the last saloon singer lays down his burden: one for us and one for that long, long road.

Well, that’s how it goes
And, Joe, I know you’re getting anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you didn’t mind my bending your ear.

Five years later Miller played it at Sinatra’s funeral. The familiar introduction, but no voice came in, no “It’s quarter to three …” In all the years Bill Miller had accompanied the familiar words, for the first time ever there was no one in the place except him.